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Comment: Harvard University Press; 2014; 9.40 X 6.20 X 1.30 inches; Hardcover; Very Good+ in Very Good+ dust jacket; Text clean and tight; 368 Pages
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America's Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community Hardcover – April 29, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


Tsai’s recovery of the constitutional plans of dissenting political communities challenges our sense of a stable constitutional history. America’s Forgotten Constitutions masterfully exposes the disturbingly shaky foundations of constitutional identity; yet it also shows the (mildly reassuring) consistency of constitutional thinking, even among white supremacists, land-grabbers, and moralistic ideologues. (Sarah Barringer Gordon, author of The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America)

For two centuries, dissenters from the American mainstream have drawn inspiration from the U.S. Constitution—and chafed at it. Tsai elegantly maps the margins of our constitutional landscape to reveal one of the Framers’ great forgotten legacies. A brilliantly conceived book. (John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History)

Tsai examines eight instances of dissenting constitutions written by groups representing cultural attitudes out of the norm seeking unconventional sovereignty…The author succinctly explains each of these constitutions with the thoroughness of a legal mind and writing that avoids legalese. (Kirkus Reviews 2014-02-15)

Tsai has selected eight transformative legal texts to show how legality and social process interact in dissident communities and diverse settings. The documents represent an astonishing array of ideologies from utopian socialism and internationalism to Confederate and black power movements. Using an analytical framework based on categories of sovereignty and self-rule, each chapter considers the historical significance and dynamic growth of its community, culminating in marginalization or integration of its philosophies into the broader legal and political culture of this nation. The organization is historical, beginning with 19th-century social campaigns to nascent Aryan nation communities. The author successfully demonstrates the difficulties of establishing and maintaining alternative legal cultures even with strong, visionary leadership…A deft, readable investigation of this country’s complex legal traditions with lessons for contemporary fringe groups. (Antoinette Brinkman Library Journal 2014-04-15)

Offers a refreshing and innovative take on a centuries-old topic…These stories of ‘forgotten constitutions’ offer a tantalizing glimpse into the power of the written word in shaping American political discourse and ideas, both popular and philosophical, about American society. This is not merely a collection of assorted oddities or constitutional anecdotes from America’s political margins, however. Taken together, they comprise a chronological narrative of some of the key issues galvanizing political activism throughout the past 200 years of American history…By exploring the efforts of those who went beyond mere intellectual debate, and who actually tried to build alternative nations or states within the U.S., Tsai offers a unique vantage into the ideological struggles underpinning American history and politics…These constitutional efforts all represent efforts by everyday Americans to take charge of the society immediately surrounding them, express their grievances with the status quo and literally re-write the conditions of their lives. (Hans Rollman PopMatters 2014-04-18)

Engaging to read…[Tsai’s] picture is far richer than the grim founder worship usually found in American political orthodoxy…For Tsai’s constitution writers, the U.S. Constitution stands as an obligatory model, something they necessarily define themselves in relation to. All designed some sort of republic. All detailed mechanisms for ‘popular decision making, divided powers, and enumerated rights.’ And all, in the end, underline just how largely the Constitution figures in the American political imagination: less a charter of freedom than a document of power. (Tom Arnold-Foster Daily Beast 2014-07-04)

About the Author

Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 29, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674059956
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674059955
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #820,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University. He spent his formative years in the Pacific Northwest and California. After studying at Yale Law School, he clerked for two federal judges. Tsai is a prize-winning essayist in the fields of constitutional law, legal history, and democratic theory. "Eloquence and Reason" (Yale 2008), his book on the development of First Amendment culture, has been described as "fresh," "sophisticated," and "compelling." Tsai's second book,"America's Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community" (Harvard 2014) investigates eight failed constitutions and the popular theories of law associated with those legal texts. The author lives in Washington, D.C.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Rick Surles on May 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've always thought it interesting when people state their vision of what the world could be. If they are really serious about that vision, they will express it in political terms through a written constitution, laying out the structure of a government that will promote the kind of society they dream about. Robert Tsai here tells the stories of eight of these efforts. These run from the practical to the utopian and on to the purely radical.

Indian Stream was a small republic tucked between New Hampshire and Canada. In the early days of America, the borders between the U.S. and our northern neighbor were unclear, which, in turn, resulted in land title disputes. Unable to get the issues resolved by any existing governmental authority, they decided to form their own system until such time as they could figure out who they belonged to. I thought this was the most interesting of the stories. It certainly seemed to be the most American, with pioneers taking their governance into their own hands. Besides the Confederate constitution (also included in the book) it is the only charter that was used in a practical, governing application.

The Icarian charter is also included, and was put to practical use, albeit exclusive to the colonies run by the French socialists. This apparently worked well for them as they became the longest running utopian movement based in the U.S.

The proposed constitution for the State of Sequoyah documents Native American efforts at self-rule in Oklahoma before statehood. Unfortunately, in needing Congressional approval, the authors made it look like any other contemporary state constitution. More interesting in this chapter was the description of the Okmulgee Constitution.
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